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Full text of "A. Lincoln : Commander in Chief"




Commander in Chi 




braham Lincoln was an extremely able 
commander In chief, but few Americans 
in 1861. or even in 1863. recognized 
Lincoln's genius for military strategy. 
Whereas Jefferson Davis. President of the 
Confederacy, was a West Point graduate 
and Mexican War hero. Lincoln had virtu- 
ally no previous military experience. In- 
deed, he often joked about his brief army 
career: four months' service (April-July. 1832) with 
cral rag-tag militia companies in the Black Hawk War 
Elected captain by his New Salem friends. Lincoln in 
spired more humor than gallantry as a leader of men 
Once, when marching his company toward a narrow gate 
he forgot the correct command to form his troops in a sin 
gle column so they could advance. "Halt!" Lincoln fi 
nally shouted. "This company will break ranks for two 
minutes and form again on the other side of the gate." In 
contrast to Davis. Lincoln was a civilian by habit, experi- 
ence, and vision. Yet this background served the Rail- 
splitter well later when he led the citizen soldiers who 
fought in the Civil War. 

Lincoln succeeded as a military leader because he grasped 
the fundamentals of modern war, Unlike many journalists 
and politicians. Lincoln recognized that the Civil War 
would be a long, bloody struggle. He understood that the 
North could win the war only if it used effectively its vast 
superiority in manpower, transportation, and supply. In 
the first three years of the war, however, Lincoln failed to 
find a field commander who would exploit these advan- 
tages. Instead, the President entrusted the Union military 
fortunes to a string of ineffectual generals — Irvin Mc- 
Dowell. George B. McClellan. Ambrose E. Burnside. 
John Pope, and others. Time and time again in 1862, 
Lincoln urged McClellan to attack the Confederates. Re- 
buking the General for his continual delays. Lincoln fi- 
nally wrote: "I have just read your despatch about sore 
tongued and latiegued [sic] horses. Will you pardon me 
for asking what the horses of your army have done since 
the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?" The road to 
Union victory was cleared when Lincoln finally placed 
military command in the hands of Ulysses S. Grant and 
William T. Sherman. Like Lincoln, these generals real- 
ized that the Union could be preserved only if it fought a 
total war. Anything less would result in Confederate 
independence. 









Compared with the battle plans proposed b\ his early ad- 
visors. Lincoln's strategy was bold, imaginative, anil ag- 
gressive. He ordered several simultaneous offensives — 
indifferent theatres — designed to crush the South. Insist- 
ing that civilian authorities have a voice in the direction of 
the Northern war effort. Lincoln hounded his generals to 
maintain constant pressure on the entire periphery of the 
Confederacy until a weak spot emerged. Lincoln urged 
upon his commanders the importance of defeating the en- 
emy's armies, crushing its industrial base, and destroying 
its will to fight. The President was less concerned with oc- 
cupying Southern territory than with winning the war. 
Expediency shaped Lincoln's military thought. He recog- 
nized that he had to break with the old tenets of war. 
Among the President's more radical moves was his deci- 
sion to free and arm the slaves. With this bold strike at the 
South's "peculiar institution." Lincoln accomplished 
three goals: he provided needed manpower (178,895 
black soldiers) for the Union armies; he weakened the 
South's labor force: and he inspired Afro-Americans. 
North and South, to suppress the rebellion. Other innova- 
tions reveal Lincoln's understanding of the concept of to- 
tal war. He authorized the devastating marches led by 
Sherman in Georgia and North Carolina, and by Philip H. 
Sheridan in Virginia. Late in the war. he refused to ex- 
change prisoners with the Confederacy. Each rebel soldier 
returned to his unit, reasoned Lincoln, would help pro- 
long the war. Lincoln also was the first commander in 
chief to declare medicines contraband of war. But 
Lincoln's most important legacy as a strategist was his es- 
tablishment of the modern command system: a com- 
mander in chief (Lincoln) to establish overall strategy; a 
general in chief (Grant) to implement plans; and a chief of 
staff (Henry W. Halleck) to relay information. Thus 
Lincoln, without recognizing his long-range contribution 
to our modern command system, laid its foundation 
in 1864. 

Although Lincoln made mistakes as a war leader, he 
learned from them and never looked back. Lincoln grew 
as a strategist; he asked questions; he read; he probed — 
anything within his power to shorten the war. Ironically it 
was Lincoln, a most unlikely military man, who became 
America's apostle of modern war. 



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Commander in Chief